Engs, Ruth C. and David J. Hanson. (1999)  Reduction of Consumption Theory: A Test Using the Drinking Patterns and Problems of Collegians in the United States, 1983-1994. College Student Journal. 33 (3):333-345.

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Reduction of consumption theory: A test using the drinking patterns and problems of collegians in the United States since 1982-1993.

Ruth C. Engs
Department of Applied Health Science
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405

David J. Hanson
Department of Sociology
State University of New York at Potsdam, NY 13676-2294


     A national sample of university students over a twelve year time period from the 1982-1983 to the 1993-1994 academic year was used to test the reduction (control) of consumption model. The total sample size for each of five time periods during the duration of the study was: 10,247 in 1993-1994; 6,751 in 1990-1991; 6,872 in 1978-1988; 4,719 in 1984-1985; and 5,504 in 1982-1983. Students were administered the Student Alcohol Questionnaire for each of the time periods. The results showed a significant (p< .001) increase in the percent of abstainers (17.7 to 26.8) and a significant (p< .001) decrease in the mean drinks per week among all students(14.3 to 13.1) over the twelve year period. There was a significant (p< .001) decrease in the percent of students who exhibited the four drinking and driving related variables, an example of which is is having driven a car after consuming several drinks.  However, there was a significant increase (p< .001) or stabilization of most health/ personal (for example vomiting as a result of drinking), social/academic (for example, missing a class because of a hangover), and legal/ violent (for example, getting into a fight after drinking) problems related to alcohol. It was concluded that reduction of consumption hypothesis was supported only by the drinking and driving variables.


Philosophies and approaches to reducing drinking problems can be generally categorized as being socio-culturally oriented or reduction of consumption oriented. The socio-cultural model (Plaut, 1967) tends to assume that it is, the misuse of alcohol not alcohol, itself, that is the source of drinking problems; that it is important to distinguish between drinking and alcohol abuse of alcohol; that the misuse of alcohol can be reduced by educating individuals to make one of two decisions (to abstain or to drink responsibly); that societal norms regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior for those who choose to drink must be clear and unambiguous; and that people who are going to drink as adults should gradually learn how to drink before they become an adult.

The socio-cultural approach is reflected in such proposals as permitting parents to serve their children alcohol, which gives youth an opportunity to learn sensible and


moderate drinking in controlled and safe circumstances; portraying moderation in drinking rather than drinking per se as a sign of maturity; encouraging advertising that portrays alcohol as a natural, normal part of life rather than a sign of masculinity or as a solution to problems; eliminating the stigmatization of alcohol; licensing laws and other measures that move alcohol away from an emphasis on drinking-only into settings and activities that can often be enjoyed by the whole family together (sports events, bowling alleys, theaters, certain resort facilities, and so on); changing taverns from dark and furtive haunts to well-lit, cheerful places where people can get food as well as drink (Wilkinson, 1970; Miller, 1982; Thompson et al., 1984; Education Commission of the States, 1970; Cisin, 1978; Hanson and Engs, 1994).

On the other hand, the reduction of consumption model (usually referred to as the control of consumption model) tends to assume that alcohol is the necessary and sufficient cause of all drinking problems; that the availability of alcohol determines the extent to which it will be consumed; that the quantity of alcohol consumed (rather than the manner in which it is consumed, the purpose for which it is consumed, the social context in which it is consumed, etc.) determines the extent of drinking problems; and that educational efforts should be directed toward stressing the problems that alcohol consumption can cause and encouraging abstinence (Single, 1988; Lauderdale, 1977).

The more traditional reduction of consumption approach called for the complete and total prohibition of the manufacture, distribution, sale, possession and consumption of any and all alcoholic beverages. Given the demonstrated failure of Prohibition, adherents of the reduction of consumption model now more typically call for a diversity of measures designed to discourage consumption. These include such policies as imposing higher taxes on alcoholic beverages; limiting or reducing the number of sales outlets; further restricting the permissible location for sales outlets; limiting the alcoholic content of beverages; prohibiting or limiting the advertising of alcohol; requiring the use of warning messages with all advertisements and on all beverage containers; requiring the display of warning signs in establishments that sell or serve alcoholic beverages; limiting the days or hours during which alcohol can be sold; increasing server liability for subsequent problems associated with the misuse of alcohol; limiting the sale of alcohol to people of specific ages; and eliminating the tax deducibility of alcohol as a business expense (U. S. Department of Education, 1988; New York State Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, 1990; Horton, 1989, 1992; Mosher, 1980; Schmidt, 1985; National Temperance and Prohibition Council,  1991; American council on Alcohol Problems, n.d.)

The reduction of consumption approach is often referred to as the single distribution model.  The single (or log normal) distribution is used to explain alcohol consumption and the incidence of alcohol problems (Lederman, 1956).  It is argued that the proportion of heavy drinkers increases exponentially as the mean consumption level rises.  Thus, if average consumption doubles, the number of heavy


drinkers would increase about eightfold (Smith, 1985).  Similarly, it is argued that if mean consumption decreases, the number of heavy drinkers (and of drinking problems) would decrease dramatically.

The reduction of consumption approach assumes that the problem is alcohol itself while the socio-cultural approach assumes that the the problem is misuse of alcohol. Hence, reduction of consumption policies attempt to prevent or discourage people from consuming alcohol while socio-cultural policies attempt to prevent people from using alcohol irresponsibly in a high risk manner.

Recent research generally provides more support for the socio-cultural than for the reduction of consumption approach. For example, a meta-analysis of studies of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) found the program to have almost no impact (Ennert et al., 1994). Another popular abstinence-oriented educational programe, Life Education, used in at least a dozen countries around the world appears to be counter-productive (Hawthorn et al., 1995). These findings are consistent with a worldwide review of alcohol education outcomes evaluations which found that abstinence-based programs tended to be less effective than those consistent with the socio-cultural approach (Hanson, 1996b). Similarly, another extensive review of research found reduction of consumption policies to be generally less effective than socio-cultural policies (Hanson, 1995). However, some evidence supports a reduction of consumption approach or is unclear in its implications (Botvin et al., 1995; Slater and Domenech, 1995; Scribner et al., 1995). Thus, the issue remains unsettled and highly controversial.

The purpose of this study is to test the hypothesis that alcohol consumption and drinking problem rates are positively related over time among college students.  A national sample of college students over the twelve-year time period from the 1982-1983 to the 1993-1994 academic year in the United States was used to test the reduction (control) of cunsumption model.



An anonymous precoded instrument, the Student Alcohol Questionnaire (SAQ), was used to collect data at each of the five time periods. It includes demographic items; six questions concerning quantity and frequency of wine, spirits and beer consumption; and 17 items regarding possible negative health, social/legal consequences resulting of alcohol abuse. Instructions for completing the instrument explain the voluntary nature of participation as approved by the authors' Institutional Review Boards. The instructions for completing the instrument explain the voluntary nature of participation as approved by the authors' Institutional Review Boards.  The instrument an internal consistency reliability of .79. Updated analyses have recently demonstrated Spearman-Brown reliability coefficients of .84 for the Quantity/Frequency and .89 for the Problems Related to Drinking subscales. The values of Cronbach alpha reliability are .86 and .92 respectively, for these subscales (Engs and Hanson, 1994).



The sample consisted of those students attending baccalareate-granting colleges and universities located in every state in the United States, who completed the SAQ as part of a cross-sectional trend study of drinking patterns and problems from which data have been collected five times since 1982-1983 (Engs and Hanson, 1985, 1988, 1993; Hanson and Engs, 1992). The institutions were originally selected in 1982 as a quota sample to represent all baccalaureate institutions of higher education in terms of public or private support, number of students enrolled, demographic characteristics of student body, and population of the community location, and region of the country (Year Book of Higher Education, 1978).

At each sampling period the researchers contacted the chairs of sociology and health or physical education departmentsin the sampled insitutions with the request that they solicit cooperation from faculty who taught survey type classes that they judged to have had a high probability of containing students from every academic major (i.e., personal health, general sociology, first aid) and class year (i.e., first-year, second-year, etc).  These faculty were asked to distribute the SAQ to students for in-class completion and to return the completed questionnaires to the researchers. In case a student had previously completed the questionnaire in another class they were requested not to complete the instrument again.  The return rate for complete and usable questionnaires of this convenience sample exceeded 97% at each time period. Instructions to both the faculty and the students remained identical throughout the entire time period.

The total sample over the twelve year period contained students from 128 colleges and universities, some of which were the same throughout the period, while others were matched for institutions that did not participate in the same time period.  When a sampled institution was not available for a given time period, a similar institution matched for size and funding source in the same state was used.  If a match was not found, the college or university was not included.

The total sample size for each time period were, 5,978 in 1982-1983, 5,209 in 1984-1985, 7,480 in 1987-1988, 7,221, in 1990-1991, and 11,529 in 1993-1994.  Sampled institutions had the following characteristics in each time period: percent of public institutions were 83.2, 77.4, 85.6, 85.0 and 85.1 respectively and the percent of institutions under 10,000 students were 63.8, 63.6, 54.9, 47.8, and 50.6 respectively.  while others were matched for institutions that did not participate at a particular time period. When a sample institution was not available for a given time period, a similar institution matched for size and funding source in the same state was used. If a match was not found, the college or university was not included.

The demographic composition of the resulting samples were similar.  The percent of females was 59.7 (1982-1983), 62.1 (1984-1985), 60.4 (1987-1988), 61.0 (1991), and 60.9 (1993-1994). The percent of non-whites was 11.1 (1982-1983), 11.2 (1984-1985), 10.0 (1987-1988), 7.7 (1991), and 10.4 (1993-1994). In all five time periods females, whites, and those attending public institutions have been consistently over-represented compared to the universe of students attending baccalaureate-granting in the United States as a whole.  For collegiate students as a whole in the United States, the proportion of females in each of the first four time peri-


ods (1993 being the last year for which data were available), was 52%, 49%, 50% and 52% respectively.  The proportion of non-whites for each time period was 14% for the first three periods and 12% in the fourth.  The proportion attending public institutions remained constant across time at 68% (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1991; Snyder, 1993).

Because of its large size, the sample had high power for detecting significant difference. However, the large sample size also introduces the chance of type I errors. Therefore, significant differences at the .05 level of confidence must be viewed with caution.

Data Analyses

Quantity/Frequency drinking level

Based on a method suggested by Cahalen et al. (1969) and adapted by Engs (1977), scores on Quantity/Frequency level were categorized as Abstainer, Light to Moderate Drinker, and Heavy Drinker.  Quantity-Frequency measure for each respondent was calculated from the beverage (beer, wine, spirits) most frequently used and the amount consumed on a typical occasion.  Categories were: Abstainer, drinks less than once a year or not at all; Light to Moderate Drinker, drinks at least once a year, or once a month, but not weekly, and consumes no more than five drinks per occasion, or drinks at least once a week, but not daily, and consumes no more than four drinks per sitting, or once a day but consumes no more than one or two drinks; Heavy Drinker, drinks more than five drinks at only one sitting once a week or more.  The proportion of students in each of these categories over the five time periods were subjected to Chi-Square analysis to determine possible changes in drinking patterns over time.

Mean number of drinks per week

Following a method developed by Lemmens et al. (1988) and adapted by Gliksman et al. (1989), the mean number of drinks consumed on a weekly basis was computed. For these calculations the instrument assessed the usual frequency and quantity of beer, wine and spirits consumed by students. The frequency and quantity response categories were assigned constant values.  Loading values used to calculate mean number of drinks per week were the usual frequency of drinking of drinking by each respondent, "every day" = 7, "at least once a week but not daily" = 3.5, "at least once a month but not weekly" = 0.5, "more than once a year but not monthly" = 0.12 and "once a year or less" = 0.02, and "never" = 0.  Values for number of drinks of beer, wine, and distilled spirits were 7+ = 7.5; 5-6 = 5.5; 3-4 = 3.5; 1-2 = 1.5; less than 1 = 0.5 and 0 = 0.  To compute the total number of drinks consumed on a weekly basis, a mean score was calculated by multiplying the recoded quantity by the recoded frequency weight for each beverage type. These three numbers were then summed to give the total mean number of drinks consumed per week. There are problems with most measures of quantity-frequency measures including this one. A limitation to this study is that under- or over-estimation of mean weekly drinks could have occurred for some individual due to the fact that the SAQ gives ranges for the frequency and quantity consumption of each


beverage. A One-Way Analysis of variance was used to compare the mean number of drinks consumed over the five time periods. The Scheffe was used as a post-hoc test to determine where differences occurred.

Drinking problems

Only students categorized as drinkers were asked to report on problem behaviors associated with drinking. Chi-square analyses were used to determine possible differences in the percentages of students exhibiting each of the 17 problems at each time period. These problems are listed in Table 3.

Table 1
Percent of Abstainers, Light to Moderate, and Heavy Drinkers Over Five Time Periods

  Drinking Pattern
(N= 11,529)
 *p < .001



Drinking patterns

Among the total sample of students, there was a significant difference (p < .001, df=8, X2=276.2) over the twelve year time span in the percent of students exhibiting different drinking patterns. There was an increase in the percent of Abstainers (17.7% to 26.8%) while there was a decrease in the percent of Light-Moderate Drinkers (61.8 to 51.9). There was little change in the proportion of Heavy Drinkers (20.5 to 21.3) (see Table 1).

Among all drinkers, there was a significant decrease over time in the mean number of drinks consumed per week (p < .001), with the mean drinks decreasing from 14.3 in 1982-1983 to 13.1 in 1993-1994 was found. The post-hoc Scheffe test indicated that there was a significant difference between all groups with the exception of the 1982-1983 and 1984-1985 time period and the 1990-1991 and 1993-1994 time period. Among light to moderate drinkers there was a decrease from 8.4 to 6.0 drinks per week. The significant groups were the first two with all later time periods and the third time period (1987-1988) with the last two time periods. Among Heavy Drinkers the decrease was from 32.1 to 30.6 drinks per week (The significant differences were between the first two and all other time periods and the third with the last time period).

Problems related to drinking

Drinking/Driving: There was a significant decrease over the twelve year time


Table 2
Mean drinks per week among Light to Moderate, Heavy and all drinkers over five time periods.
   X      (sd)     X   (sd)    X    (sd)     X    (sd)     X     (sd)
Light to Moderate
  8.4    (8.9)   8.2  (8.8)   7.1   (8.1)    6.5  (7.9)    6.0    (7.5)a.
32.1     (15.5) 31.5   (14.3) 30.7  (14.3) 29.5   (12.7) 30.6    (14.2)b.
All Drinkers
14.3     (14.9) 14.2   (14.6) 13.5  (14.6) 12.8   (13.9) 13.1     (14.9)c.
a. p<.001, F=70.4, Between groups: Mean squares = 4657.9df=4, Within groups: Mean squares=66.2, df= 3840.  Scheffe difference = 1982-83 & 1984-1985 with 1987-88 and 1193-94, 1978-88 with 1990-91 and with 1993-94.
b.  p<.001, F=6.4, Between groups: Mean squares=1286.4df=4, Within groups: Mean squares= 200.5, df=7936 Scheffe difference=1982-83&1984-85 with 1987-88 and 1993-94, 1978-88 with 1993-94.
c.  p<.001, F = 10.6, Between groups: Mean squares= 2290.4df = 4, Within groups: Mean squares = 214.1, df = 29281.  Scheffe difference= 1982-83 & 1984-85 with 1990-91 & 1993-94.
period in the percentage of students who reported driving a car after consuming several drinks (p < .001, X2 = 565.4), having driven a car when they knew they had drunk too much (p < .001, X2 = 214.5), and having driven a car while drinking (p < .001, X2 = 712.9). There was no change in the proportion who reported they had been arrested for driving while intoxicated.

    Health/Personal: Health or personal problems related to drinking either increased or stabilized over the twelve year


Table 3
Mean percent of drinkers over five time periods who had experienced each of the problems related to drinking at least once during the previous 12 months.
81-82 84-85 87-88 90-91 93-94
  Driven a car after having several drinks 59.6 54.5 48.8 42.9 40.9*
  Driven a car when they knew they had drunk too much 40.6 37.0 33.9 31.0 29.1*
  Driven a car while drinking 48.0 40.9 36.7 31.2 26.8*
  Been arrested for driving while intoxicated 1.3 1.1 1.4 1.2 1.2
  Had a hangover 72.3 73.0 75.3 75.6 72.9*
  Vomited as a result of drinking 45.3 46.8 51.3 53.2 54.5*
  Criticized by someone they were dating because of their drinking 11.4 10.8 13.5 12.7 15.1*
  Thought they might have a problem with their drinking 9.3 8.2 10.3 9.7 8.5*
  Came to class after having several drinks 8.5 8.5 8.5 7.0 7.4+
  "Cut a class" after having several drinks 9.1 10.8 9.3 9.9 11.6
  Missed a class because of a hangover 23.3 26.8 26.6 27.0 27.8*
  Got a lower grade because of drinking too much 4.7 6.0 5.8 5.8 7.0*
  Had trouble with the law because of drinking 4.4 3.9 6.1 7.6 7.1
  Got into trouble with school administration because of behavior        resulting from drinking too much 1.9 1.8 2.5 2.2 2.5+
  Got into a fight after drinking 11.7 12.1 14.8 17.2 16.7*
  Damaged property, pulled a false alarm, or other such behavior 9.6 9.7 11.5 10.6 10.4+
*p<.001   + p<.05

period. The percent who had vomited (p < .001 X2 = 145.2), or had been criticized by someone they were dating because of their drinking (p < .001 X2 = 62.2) increased. The percentage who had experienced a hangover (p < .001, X2 = 26.5) or had thought they might have had a problem with their drinking (p < .001 X2 = 19.9) have appeared to have first increased and then decreased to near 1982-1983 and 1984-1985 levels.

    Social/Academic: The proportion of students who have come to class after having several drinks (p < .05 X2 = 16.9) has decreased. However, the percent who have cut a class after having several drinks (p < .001 X2 = 30.8), missed a class because of a hangover (p < .001 X2 = 34.1), or received a lower grade because of drinking too much (p < .001 X2 = 29.6) has increased.

    Legal/Violent: After an increase during


the 1987-1988 time period, all legal/violent problems appear to have stabilized. This problems category consists of experiencing trouble with the law because of drinking, (p < .001 X2 = 95.2), getting into trouble with school administration because of behavior resulting from drinking too much (p < .05 X2 = 10.3), getting into a fight after drinking (p < .001 X2 = 112.3), and damaging property, pulling a false fire alarm, or "other such behavior" (p < .05 X2 = 13.7).

Discussion and Educational Implications

    There has been a decrease in the proportion of students who were drinkers over the eleven year time period. This decrease came from an increase in abstainers and a decrease in Light to Moderate Drinkers; the proportion of Heavy Drinkers has remained constant over the period. However, there has been a steady decrease in mean drinks per week among both Light-Moderate and Heavy Drinkers. These results appear to reflect a national trend of decreasing consumption among adults in the general population since 1980 (Engs and Hanson, 1994).

    Even though there has been an increase in the proportion of abstaining students and a continuing decrease in average consumption levels among those who choose to drink, there has not been a decrease in drinking problems except for those related to drinking and driving. This decrease in drinking and driving related problems also reflects the national trend and which has been found since the early 1980s (Engs and Hanson 1985, 1988; Hanson and Engs, 1992; General Accounting Office, 1987). These results appear to support the reduction of consumption theory only for the drinking and driving related variables. However, they do not for the many other problems related to over indulgence in alcohol.

    It is important to examine why drinking and driving related variables have been continuously decreasing while other problems related to alcohol have not among this sample of college and university students. The continued decrease in the proportion of students who reported drinking and driving problems is likely to have resulted from a combination of education and prevention programming. There has been increased awareness among university students that intoxication and driving are dangerous. Efforts on the part of many groups, including student organizations such as Boost Alcohol Consciousness among College and University Students (BACCHUS), have encouraged designated driver and related programs. The media, through continual public service announcements, have reinforced awareness of the dangers of driving drunk. All these factors are likely to have affected the decrease in drinking and driving problems.

    On the other hand, health and personal problems have either increased or leveled off. Three social and academic problems have increased and one has stabilized. Legal and violence related problems started to increase at the 1987-1988 period and now have appeared to stabilize (Engs and Hanson, 1994). These results do not support reduction of consumption theory, which would predict a gradual decrease over the decade, especially after 1987, when the legal purchase age for alcohol was federally mandated as age 21.

    Why has there been a stabilizing or even an increase of most driinking problems among


college students even though per capita consumption has decreased ? There are probably many explanations. Reduction of consumption is a rather simplistic theory that on the surface appears plausible, e.g., if per capita consumption of any substance decreases, problems related to the consumption of that product might also decrease. This could apply to a diet high in fat or salt, tobacco, recreational drugs, or aspirin. However, the theory confuses the use with the abuse of alcohol. For many substances there is an optimum level of consumption: too much or too little can lead to health problems. For example, a small amount of alcohol - one or two drinks per day - or of aspirin - one every other day - is associated with a lower rate of fatal heart attack whereas excessive consumption of either alcohol or aspirin can be detrimental.

    Human behavior is complex and other factors may have influenced problems related to alcohol consumption among this sample of college students. These could include general social trends such as increased violence in the population at large or more underground drinking in private rooms away from campus in the absence of norms for responsible behavior. Perhaps societal phenomena such as rebellion of youth against drinking age laws, the rapid change in family structure, societal stress from population pressures, or reactance may be factors which have subtlety encouraged increased problems related to problems related to alcohol consumption (Engs and Hanson 1989). All of these factors are consistent with the socio-cultural but not to the reduction of consumption approach, which focuses entirely on consumption levels.

The failure of the reduction of consumptio theory suggests the need for an alternative approach based on the experience of peoples around the world.  Some societies and groups widely and extensively  consume alcohol with very few problems and others experience much misuse.  By analyzing those who use it successfully, we can apply their techniques in our own use of alchohol.  Italians, Greeks, Jews and many others tend to share three common keys to success (Engs 1981; Hanson 1996a):

-First, there is an absence of emotionality assiociated with alcohol, which is seen as neither poison on the one hand nor as a magic elixir on the other.
- Second, there is little or no social pressure to drink.  Abstaining and drinking in moderation are seen as equally desirable or acceptable choices.  However, the abuse of alcohol is never tolerated for any reason.
- Third, young people learn at home from their parents and their parents' good example how to handle alcohol responsibly.
    These cultural experiences, and the demonstrated inadequacies of the reduction of consumption approach, suggest the desirablity of new policies.  We recommend the following (Hanson 1995; Engs 1997).
- The current reduction of consumption approach should be abandoned.  There is extensive evidence that it is based on questionable assumption, that its policies are ineffective, and that it may be counterproductive (Hanson, 1995).

- All attempts to stigmatize beverage alcohol as a "dirty drug", a poison, or as an inherently harmful substance to be shunned should be ended.  Stigmatizing alcohol contributes to ambivalence, and exacerbates the problem it seeks to solve.
- The distinction between acceptable and unacceptable drinking should be clarified.  It is essential to distinguish between the use and the abuse of alcohol; one is acceptable while the other is not.
- Unacceptable drinking behaviors should be strongly sanctioned both legally and socially.  Importantly, intoxication must never be accepted as an excuse for otherwise unacceptable behaviors.
- Parents should have the right to serve alcohol to their offspring of any age, not only in the home, also in public places when their children are under their direct supervision.  Parents need to serve as appropriate role models for sensible, responsible and moderate drinking.
- Educational efforts should encourage moderate use of alcohol among those who chose to drink.  It is important that these efforts present moderate drinking and abstinence as equally acceptable or appropriate choices.
   In conclusion, the reduction of consumption approach does not appear to have been effective, other than for drinking and driving variables, among this sample of university and college students.  Yet in the United States today, some fraternities and even entire campuses are "going dry".  Simply doing more of what is not effective will not lead to success: "a dog chasing its tail can't catch it by running faster."  State prohibition did not work in the 1850s, nor did National Prohibition in the 1920s.  Prohibition for university and college students also appears to be doomed to failure.  Other methods, besides the reduction of consumption model, need to be explored in order to find solutions for this complex social problem.


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